Sunday at the Masters was not a day for low scores and pageantry. With a storm blowing in and dark clouds overhead, it was a white-knuckled drag race to the clubhouse. A dozen players were within hailing distance by the end. None of them could catch the guy in the red shirt.
Tiger Woods won his fifth masters and 15th major Sunday at Augusta National, moving him one and three back of Jack Nicklaus, respectively. Woods' last major win was the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, when he finished on a shredded knee that kicked off the cascading injuries that have derailed his last decade. He won his last Masters in 2005, the longest gap between Masters wins in history.
As Tiger walked off the 18th green, he was greeted by his mother and his son, in an embrace that evoked the hug with his own father after that '97 Masters.
“It’s come full circle,” Woods said. “My dad was there in 97, and now I’m a dad. … I’m at a loss for words. There was my dad -- he shouldn’t have been there, he was recovering from a heart attack, heart surgery. To have my boy, Charlie, that embrace, it’s just special.”
Woods came into Sunday two shots off the lead after shooting 5-under 67 on Saturday, and with a little less sleep than he would have liked.
"Usually the reward for playing hard and doing all the things correctly," Woods said Saturday, "you get a nice little sleep-in come Sunday, but that's not the case."
Due to a dreary forecast, the typically Augusta tournament needed to haul ass Sunday to wrap up the final round before the rain. That meant groups of three, split tees, and a start four hours earlier than typical. Sure enough, rain blew in as the leaders reached the back nine Sunday.
Woods crushed the ball all weekend, but so did the rest of the field. Three players shot 64 on Saturday. The leaderboard turned into an orgiastic dogpile around Amen Corner on Sunday.
Francesco Molinari, the leader coming into the day, swashbuckled through the front nine, hitting tough shots to maintain a slim lead over the field -- and Tiger. Then he double-bogeyed 12 after finding the water hazard, and the rain began falling harder. He fell to -11, in a three-way tie for the lead with four a shot behind.
Then Patrick Cantlay, one of the three players to shoot a 64 on Saturday, sank an Eagle putt on the low-scoring par-5 15th to move ahead of them all at -12.
Then Cantlay bogeyed the next two holes.
By the time the penultimate group finished at the 15th, it was a five-way tie for the lead between Woods, Molinari, Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka.
Tiger broke the tie minutes later. Alone at -13.
The next hole, the par-3 16th, his tee shot skittered inches past the hole and came to a rest two to three feet away. Woods made the birdie. Two clear at -14.
And that was that. The field fell away, unable to keep pace with the old man.
It was a five-way tie at 15, and Tiger walked the 18th fairway needing bogey to win.
His bad back did come up. It seemed to flare up late on Thursday, when he had to save par on the generous 15th after spraying his tee shot, or flubbing a clean approach shot on the 9th Sunday that he had to hit on a downslope, an angle that puts more pressure on his fused back. Margins aren’t as forgiving for Woods these days as they were in the past, when he could spray the driver and make miracles happen with his irons and on the green. His putter is unreliable these days -- he missed an armful of 5-to-10-footers that, at a different point in his life, would have been gimmies. A few more makes would have had him clear of the field.
There was some magic, though. Friday he shanked his 14th-hole tee shot into threes, hit a magical recovery seconds before being slide-tackled by a falling security guard, then drained a 30-foot birdie putt.
Sunday, though, was about reckoning with Tiger Woods in repose. When he arrived at Augusta in 1997, he seemed to be fully formed. How could anyone who beats the field by 12 strokes not be? The years have changed his game, eroded it too, but some things are immutable.
Watching Tiger now, near the end, is remarkably like watching him across the years. He got into trouble, fought his way out, consulted the dark arts on a handful of otherworldly shots, and left just enough on the table to wonder what happens if he puts it all together.
It used to be that “what if” meant clobbering the field by 15 strokes. Now it’s something more like Sunday: three birdies on the back nine, choking the life out of all contenders, bogey to win with just a hint of a fist pump, and a bear hug for his children.